BRITISH ELECTIONS

Sunday, May 25, 1997

Hoover fellow Jerry Dorfman and Kenneth Garcia, Staff Writer, San Francisco Chronicle discuss the Labor Party's victory in the national election. What does a Labor Party victory mean for Great Britain, and do British domestic politics matter to the United States?

Recorded on Sunday, May 25, 1997

ROBINSON: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution. This spring, an election took place Great Britain, and the results were dramatic. After eighteen years in power, the Conservative Party, first led by Margaret Thatcher, then by John Major, was thrown out of office, crushed in the worst defeat the Conservative Party has suffered since 1832, by the Labour Party, under the new prime minister Tony Blair. Now, what does Tony Blair stand for? Well, each year the Labour Party publishes a manifesto, a manifesto that until 1994 contained a clause that called for "the building of socialism in Great Britain." So you might suppose that Prime Minister Blair takes his inspiration from this man, Karl Marx. Not so. Mr. Blair won the election by moving the Labour Party from the left to the center. You might even argue that Prime Minister Tony Blair takes his inspiration not from Karl here but from this man, Bill Clinton.

Now, there are any number of parallels between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, and we'll be discussing them with our guests, Gerald Dorfman, a Hoover fellow, and Ken Garcia, a reporter who covered the British elections for the San Francisco Chronicle. Both Blair and Clinton altered the public's perceptions of the parties they lead. Both are lawyers, for that matter. Both are married to lawyers. But the parallel that most interests me is that both attended Oxford University, where I happened to have studied myself. Oxford. In this generation, it has produced a generation of the United States, a prime minister of Great Britain, and, as my boat club blazer indicates--well, that was a few years ago--the host of this show.

I began our conversation by asking how the new prime minister Tony Blair won so handily and the old prime minister lost so badly.

MAJOR CATASTROPHE

ROBINSON: So, in Britain, we have the economy growing very nicely, the country's at peace, and the Tories not only did not stay in power but got kicked out on their backsides. Ken, why?

GARCIA: Well, they had been in power too long. That's the simple explanation. It's a case where, even though there's great prosperity in Great Britain right now, there's a sense that it's not going to last, and the Tories are largely responsible for that, that they're somehow on the edge and they could fall off at any time.

ROBINSON: Oh, so the feeling is that the boom is winding down? And is that reflected in the financial markets or it's more a matter of mood and atmospherics?

GARCIA: I'd say it's more a matter of mood. I'm not sure what you'd think, Gerry, but even their own ad campaign was a bit risky. It came up. The Labour Party officials said, "I can't believe that they did that." They were talking about "boom or bust."

ROBINSON: The Tories were?

DORFMAN: The Tories were.

GARCIA: If you vote in Labour, you're thinking bust, but in fact what it signified to everybody else is that we're closer to a bust and that the Tories are largely responsible for that.

ROBINSON: Gerry, how come the Tories lost?

DORFMAN: Well, I think the normal human aging process projected onto the political process, that over time political parties lose it, and people also lose it in terms of being interested in the political party in power, and they look for an alternative. And even when it's in good times, they're looking for an alternative.

ROBINSON: The Tories had been in power almost two decades?

DORFMAN: It's been since 1979, so it's eighteen years.

ROBINSON: Eighteen years, and they've been through two prime ministers--Mrs. Thatcher for eleven and some years and John Major for six and a half years or so. So, you're saying that there was a feeling that the economy was actually fragile; although growing, the growth was fragile. And you're saying that people were bored with it? Is that right?

DORFMAN: Yes, but there's more than that. There was really a role reversal that occurred in British politics over the last five years. And I think what you have in Britain is two elections that went the wrong way. If the conventional wisdom about elections is that, in good times, parties stay in office and, in bad times, they get kicked out, if you look at the last two elections, the British electorate did exactly the opposite of what electorates do. In 1992, they kept the government that should have been kicked out--

ROBINSON: Because the economy was bad?

DORFMAN: Because the economy was very bad.

ROBINSON: Five years ago, the economy was sour.

DORFMAN: Very bad.

ROBINSON: But the Tories still won.

DORFMAN: They won when they shouldn't have won, and they lost this time when they should have won--to correct, in effect, the mistake of 1992, which created an excessively long incumbency.

ROBINSON: The Tories got kicked out because they'd been in office too long and people were tired of them. Why did Labour win? I mean, it's one thing to kick out the Tories, it's another for Labour to come in with a huge majority, which they've done. How come?

GARCIA: They outmaneuvered them. I'd say that, in a pure political sense, Labour had been gearing up for this victory for several years. I mean, they had been pointing to this campaign since 1992, and so they were, in effect, campaigning all these years, whereas the Tories were very complacent. They were beset by infighting. They had all sorts of scandals--there were sex scandals, there were financial scandals.

ROBINSON: All right. A disciplined Labour Party crushed a distracted Tory Party, but let's turn from parties to individuals, the man who led the Labour Party to its victory.

BREATH OF FRESH BLAIR

ROBINSON:Tell me about Tony Blair. He's forty-three years old, just a year older than John Kennedy was when he became the youngest president in American history. Where did this man come from?

GARCIA: Well, he came through the British system of the great and the good. He's a fairly well-to-do gentleman who went to Oxford.

ROBINSON: He's a gentleman?

GARCIA: Yes, he is a gentleman.

ROBINSON: That would tend to denote--that's a class term as you use it.

GARCIA: Yes.

ROBINSON: He's somebody from the upper middle class or lower upper class or whatever. And he went to Oxford?

GARCIA: He went to Oxford, and he studied there. He's very energetic, he's very bright, and I think he really clicked with the British people in some sense. I mean, he offered a new, a generational hope, not unlike Kennedy.

ROBINSON: So, is this a man--first of all, he's atypical because he didn't work his way up through the unions, he didn't begin as a working class politician. Correct, Gerry?

DORFMAN: Right, right.

ROBINSON: Now, did he suddenly burst onto the scene because the Labour Party discovered he was good on television?

DORFMAN: Well, I think the Labour Party--it's part of this whole process of becoming like the Conservatives, looking like the Conservatives. He was the perfect match for the times, totally off the wall as a Labour Party leader. In historical terms, there's never been anybody like him.

ROBINSON: Because they've all had more working class roots?

DORFMAN: Well, that or they've had roots in the traditional social democratic traditions of the Labour Party, so they're not of the kind of class origins that Tony Blair had. So, this is a really atypical kind of guy, who fit. But there was the accident that the prior leader, John Smith, who had much more traditional Labour roots though on the right of the party, died very suddenly. And, in fact, that accident of history put in place the final piece of the Labour puzzle for the election of '97.

ROBINSON: Traditionally, who stands for what, Ken? The Tories stand for--?

GARCIA: The Tories are the Republicans, if that's not too crass.

ROBINSON: So, that would be smaller government--?

GARCIA: Smaller government, more privatization, free market systems.

ROBINSON: And Labour stands for traditionally?

DORFMAN: Labour stands as kind of a democratic party, but it has a stronger rooting in the union movement. In fact, the unions created the Labour Party. So there's been a stronger rooting in that and in social democracy in the European sense.

ROBINSON: Is it accurate to call the Labour Party as, at least until recently, socialist?

DORFMAN: No, social democratic, and that is a modification, if you will, or a different kind of socialism, which is more committed to the democratic system of capitalism.

ROBINSON: Bill Clinton--new Democrat. Tony Blair--new Labour. Both graduates of Oxford. Both baby boomers. Now, will Blair govern like Bill?

BILL AND TONY'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE

ROBINSON: I happen to be a person who finds Britain interesting in and of itself. I'm not sure how many Americans do find Britain interesting in and of itself, so one question is, Are there any parallels between the British experience and our own experience to which we as Americans ought to pay attention?

GARCIA: Labour co-opted or took over the center, and it helped them win. I mean, they took over a lot of traditional Tory policies.

ROBINSON: They stole their opponents ideas. And Bill Clinton does the same?

GARCIA: Right. That's exactly what he did. I mean, a lot of people think that Bill Clinton is actually a Republican.

ROBINSON: So you co-opt--?

DORFMAN: You co-opt and take away the agenda which is successful for the Tory Party. You, in fact, eliminate that agenda from discussion. That leaves you with some chances. The chances are then that you can melt the situation where the electorate wants to change anyway. And ironically, almost perversely, the Tories have done a good job running the government. Therefore, things in Britain were at the best they had been economically for thirty-five years, and the electorate could have the luxury of taking the economy also off the table as an issue and they could simply decide, "Well, what do we want to do?" And what "we want to do" is get rid of those same faces, all the squabbling, all the sleaze, and have somebody new.

ROBINSON: A fresh start for the sake of freshness, made possible because Blair co-opted enough of his opponents' ideas to look safe. You'll buy that?

GARCIA: Yes, I will. I mean, remember, his whole thing was "new Labour." Old Tory, new Labour--what's it going to be? I mean, if the issues are relatively the same, now you're making a choice between Tony Blair and a new fresh start--or so they would have liked to have sold it as such--and John Major and this group of, this party that was just imploding right up to the election.

DORFMAN: They were imploding because they were behaving as if they were an older person with a lot of symptoms of disease and decay and, in effect, displaying all the problems that come along. And in political systems, you start having a lot of sleaze and you start fighting with each other, and they were doing them all.

ROBINSON: We keep coming back to this notion that the Tories were just in power too long. People were tired of them. It almost seems as though they were tired of power themselves. Do you get that notion?

DORFMAN: Yes.

ROBINSON: Labour wanted to run the government, and the Tories just didn't know quite what to do with it.

GARCIA: Well, I'm not so sure that they didn't want to win. I think that they had stopped figuring out a way to do so, and part of the problem was that, once Major lost control of his own party, they lost the election. So, in the years leading up to the election, he had all these sex scandals, he had all these problems within the party, and he never dealt with them. I mean, he never was able to remove some people from office that he should have, and he looked like a very weak leader.

ROBINSON: Here's what bothers me about the discussion so far: Blair wins because he's fresh, Tories lose because they're old, and that's just--let's buy some new clothes, let's just redecorate the house. I mean, it's almost as though there's nothing at stake except cosmetic appearances and atmospherics.

DORFMAN: But that's what's common in politics, that's what's more frequent. The last seventeen years we've lived a political life a lot about ideas and differences in philosophy, but on both sides of the Atlantic, the two opposition parties have discovered that it's no fun to be in opposition, so they've started to imitate, in the political free market of ideas and competition, the other party in order to win--either because the ideas are attractive or because, and because, it neutralizes those ideas and shifts over to the more trivial. And politics is mostly about the more trivial, scandals and different pretty faces.

ROBINSON: Great Britain was once just that--great. But now, without its empire, does Britain have no choice but to clump itself together with old adversaries such as the Germans and the French in order to achieve greatness once again?

RULE, BRITANNIA! VIVE LA FRANCE!

ROBINSON: What does it mean to be a Euroskeptic and what does it mean to be pro-European if you're an Englishman or an Englishperson?

DORFMAN: Well, the argument in Britain, which has been raging now for three or four decades, has been about how much Britain should be part of a growing integration in Europe. This integration is something that was committed in 1955 and is not a "United States of Europe" at the moment, but there are a number of people on the continent and in England who would like it to be. The British, many of them don't want to give up their institutions--their Parliament, their currency, their central bank, the Bank of England--in order to be part of Europe. They'd like to have a nice free trading relationship with Europe, but they don't want to give up the things that they think have made their country strong and proud.

GARCIA: It's really the last vestige of the empire as they see it. It's like, "If we lose our precious pound and we become part of a larger government and a larger monetary system, what's left of the great British empire?"

ROBINSON: Well, I'm persuaded, as far as I'm concerned, I'm a Euroskeptic. It doesn't make any sense to me, if it's worked for a thousand years. In other words, what's the other side of the argument? There were Euroskeptics in the Tory Party, and there were people who were--what does it mean to be pro-European? To say, "Oh, well, let's toss all our institutions aside and join up with the French and the Germans." There has to be a more compelling argument than that.

DORFMAN: Well, there's no one who says, "I want to throw away all our institutions." What they say is, though, that increasing integration into Europe is really the only way Britain can proceed to really be competitive and viable and prosperous in the years ahead. It's not simply good enough to have a free market, that you have to come together in order to prevent, for instance, security problems, wars in the future, the kinds of difficulties Britain has had, and to finally create an economy that can stand on its own. Because the British economy is a lot more fragile than it looks at the present time in fundamental terms.

ROBINSON: Okay, so, so within the Tory Party--the Conservative Party, Tory is the nickname--both sides were represented: the Euroskeptics who didn't want closer integration of Europe and the pro-Europeans who did. And on the Labour side--what's Blair's position on Europe? What's the Labour position on Europe?

GARCIA: Blair is, "Let's not make it an issue." Really. It was more like, "We'll stand back." I mean, they both, both the Tories and the Labour Party said, "We'll take a wait and see attitude." But Labour didn't make it an issue. It really became an issue for the Conservative Party, because right up to the end they were fighting over it, I mean, publicly. Almost every single day, on the front page of all the newspapers in England, it was, like, "Euroskeptics challenge Major" on this very issue.

ROBINSON: So, here we have what has to be one of the two or three most important issues facing Britain, right? What to do about Europe. The Labour Party wins in a landslide, and you two gentlemen who are experts, you spent two weeks over there. Gerry, you've devoted your academic life to the study of Britain. You don't know the position of the new government on Europe?

DORFMAN: Well, no, let me--

ROBINSON: I don't mean that it's because of ignorance on your part; I mean it's because Blair hasn't enunciated one.

DORFMAN: No, no, I think my view is a little different than Ken's. I think the Labour Party is really not much different than the Conservative Party. They're a pretty divided group on this. The difference was that they weren't in government; they hadn't been there too long. I mean, the Conservatives were spoiling for a fight with each other. Europe is a great issue, and they disagree about it. But within the Labour Party there's profound disagreements about Europe in a number of different ways; many of them very similar; and indeed both parties tried to finesse this by papering it over as much as they possibly can. But the coming issue, which they're going to fight about in both parties, is the question of whether Britain should adopt the common currency which the Germans and the French are pressing on the rest of Europe.

ROBINSON: Now can you explain the common currency means you do away with the pound sterling?

GARCIA: That is correct. It would just be one currency for all of Europe.

ROBINSON: For all of Europe. The Euro.

GARCIA: The Euro.

DORFMAN: And it'll be like a dollar for all the states.

ROBINSON: Okay, so what happens to the picture of the Queen and--

DORFMAN: Bye-bye.

GARCIA: Well, that's the big question for most Britons.

ROBINSON: The Queen's out of a job?

DORFMAN: No, she's off the bill.

ROBINSON: She's out of the picture?

GARCIA: For most Britons, the fear is that Helmut Kohl the German Chancellor's picture is going to be on the Euro, because chances are he would head the union.

DORFMAN: And this is completely unacceptable to the British, who have a strong resentment--not explicitly and openly--but a strong resentment at the thought of German leadership on anything.

GARCIA: That's right. I mean, it goes all the way back to World War II. I mean, the polls show that the British citizens are just totally against the whole idea that they're going to lose the precious pound, really, is what it comes down to.

ROBINSON: Let me put it to you this way: You're Tony Blair, you've been prime minister for a matter of weeks at this point, you won a huge election, a crushing victory over your opponents--what do you consider that that victory gave you a mandate to do?

GARCIA: Well, I think for Labour, they are going to look at a couple of the issues that they singled out as the ones that they were going to attack first, and one of those would be a look at the national health system. They want to reform it. The national health system is in very poor shape right now.

ROBINSON: National health and the government pays for it?

GARCIA: The government pays for all of it, so you don't have to pay any of it, is a better way of--

ROBINSON: Except in taxes.

GARCIA: Except in taxes, which is--

ROBINSON: So this is largely sort of a question of management, right? Just trim costs and raise revenues?

GARCIA: Well, it is, but if you feel that the government had bungled the management, that's why you're looking for a new answer. And it's the same with the transportation system in England, which is basically broke and needs to be addressed. They're talking about welfare reform à la Bill Clinton. There's all sorts of other issues, and so it isn't like there weren't issues that people could vote on.

ROBINSON: But the first two you named were: make the hospitals work better and make the trains run on time.

DORFMAN: There's more than that.

ROBINSON: Okay. You're Tony Blair--what are you going to do?

DORFMAN: There are some very important constitutional issues. First of all, not much, frankly. In my view of the history of the Labour Party, this is pretty vanilla stuff, but let me describe what is important. There's the question of devolution. There are arguments from people in Scotland and Wales that, you know, though they're willing to be part of the United Kingdom, that's fine, [but] they don't have enough voice in politics--they want to have a parliament and a governance of their own in both of those areas, and the Labour Party is the only party that's promised to attend to that by establishing a parliament in both places with limited powers if the people agree in a referendum.

ROBINSON: And what other issues?

DORFMAN: The other issue, the other kinds of issues are often around things like freedom of information, accountability in Parliament. The traditions in British government are that the government is fairly secretive, fairly restrained in what it allows out, very hard in terms of official secrets act. We're used to a Bill of Rights; we're used to the Freedom of Information act. The British government, with a strong majority, has never had to give into those things. The Labour Party has made that one of the issues that they think they want to legislate.

ROBINSON: It looks as though any discussion of politics in Britain has to take Margaret Thatcher into account. Why is she still so important?

WE'RE ALL THATCHERITES NOW

ROBINSON: Mrs. Thatcher stepped down or was overthrown by her own party in 1990?

DORFMAN: 1990.

ROBINSON: It's been seven years since that woman was in power. I get the feeling, though, that she's still somehow a figure on the political scene to which both parties tend to respond.

DORFMAN: And to fear.

ROBINSON: Well, explain that to me, Gerry. How does this woman who has not been in power for seven years still retain prominence in the political landscape?

DORFMAN: Well, the starting point is that everybody is a Thatcherite. It's after all her ideas that are now driving the political system from left to right--what's left of the Left, what's left of the right. That she's in effect won the battle of ideas, and it's one of the conclusions that you can say about this election.

ROBINSON: Instead of repudiating Mrs. Thatcher's ideas, the Labour Party has in fact embraced them and ridden them to victory. Is that what you're saying?

DORFMAN: Basically, that's exactly right. They're all Thatcherites now.

ROBINSON: And those ideas are? Mrs. Thatcher's ideas would be what?

DORFMAN: Limited government, individual enterprise--

ROBINSON: Free markets?

DORFMAN: Free markets, the things that we all know about here, which means that we see in the United States and in Britain really the same phenomena, that everybody on both sides of the Atlantic is a Thatcherite, a Reaganite, whatever it is, that we have had a closing of the idea gap.

GARCIA: And it's also a matter of personality, if I might inject that.

ROBINSON: Sure, please.

GARCIA: I mean, what Margaret Thatcher represents in England is pretty much what Ronald Reagan represented here. I mean, for the Republicans he's like this model, this icon; now they look to Ronald Reagan as the great savior of the Republican party, and they want to get him back basically. And Bill Clinton and the Democrats saw that in '92. I mean, they co-opted a lot of the revolution. It was like this train that was running down, and they just jumped on board. You know, I mean, the revolution had already started.

ROBINSON: So, Bill Clinton said to Americans, "You want a Ronald Reagan? Don't look to the Republicans. I'll give you Ronald Reagan. I'll be warm. I'll be soft-spoken. I'll be funny." And in Britain--I'm testing this out on you--

DORFMAN: And he even would have policies like Ronald Reagan.

ROBINSON: And I'll even at least talk about tax cuts. Okay, and in Britain, Tony Blair said, "You want another Mrs. Thatcher. Don't look to her own party. Look to me. I'll be tough."

DORFMAN: Exactly.

ROBINSON: "I'll be articulate. I'll be telegenic."

DORFMAN: Exactly.

ROBINSON: "I'll be a strong national." All that is true? Now that he has such a huge mandate, what will Tony Blair do?

(FENCE) SITTING PRETTY

ROBINSON: In 2002, will we look back on Tony Blair and his government as having come into power and moved right or as having come into power and moved left?

GARCIA: I'm not sure that he's going to move at all. I mean, he's in a very comfortable place wherever he is right now, because obviously it was a swing of, what, three hundred and thirty votes.

ROBINSON: So he's, he's safe?

GARCIA: He's sitting pretty, I would say. I mean, we might disagree on this, but I'd say that we're looking at least a two-term Labour government.

ROBINSON: You think he'll win again?

DORFMAN: No, no, no, I disagree.

GARCIA: I think he'll win big again. I mean, yeah, the fact is--

ROBINSON: Put your money on the table. Put your Euro on the table right now.

GARCIA: The Tories have to make up such a lot of ground in the next couple of years, and I think, if in fact Blair manages his own party as well as he's done at least prior to his election, that they will have a very difficult time losing.

ROBINSON: Let me just flip the question. The Tories have now suffered a shattering defeat. They had three hundred and some seats in the House of Commons--

DORFMAN: Three-thirty and they have half that number.

ROBINSON: They have half that now? That's rough. Which way do they move? Left or right?

GARCIA: They probably have to move more to the right if they're going to move at all, but the thing that the Tories really need to do--they now have to replace John Major. I mean, who is going to lead the Tories at this point? Right now it's a very divided party. I'm not sure that we even know who's going to emerge from the rabble.

DORFMAN: There are two things going on here that I think are important. One is the fact that Labour got too big a majority. This hundred and seventy-one--

ROBINSON: Too big?

DORFMAN: Too big. Too big.

ROBINSON: Jerry, you are full of paradoxes this morning. How can you win too big in politics?

DORFMAN: The problem in Parliament is that you need always a disciplined majority, and Tony Blair, a tough guy, is certainly the kind of guy that can stand up to that. The nice majority is one of about forty or fifty, just enough so you're comfortable but also enough so that your members of Parliament, those who support you, feel your heat, feel that they need to be disciplined to stick together and fight.

ROBINSON: You want your own people to be a little afraid?

DORFMAN: They need to be a little afraid. The other side is on the Conservative side, and the Conservatives indeed have an extremely tough challenge. And if they perform to the classical model, they'll turn to the right and probably spend a few years fighting each other, to finish off the arguments.

ROBINSON: Jerry Dorfman, Ken Garcia, thank you very much.

CLOSING

ROBINSON: Tony Blair is now the captain of the ship of the boat of state, but as our guests indicated it's not altogether clear what he believes or where he's steering his country. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.